Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

May 16, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Family Literary Drama Part 4

 by Rosemary Reeves

Part Four:  My Mother, the Protector

If you missed the first three parts, click on the links below:

Dad hooked a sprinkler up to the hose out back the day before and I jumped to and fro over it in a swimming suit.  My sister Jean sat in a lawn chair, watching me play.  She was sixteen and didn’t want to get her hair wet.  I picked up the sprinkler and sprayed her with it.  She squealed and jumped out of the chair, then chased me around on the grass.  Neighbors in the units across the way were sitting outside, drinking cups of Koolaid.  They laughed at our antics.  Someone was playing Beatles records.  The catchy music added to the summer fun. 

All the while, the sky was growing very dark.  Rain began to fall and I ran back inside.  Jean rushed in behind me, whining about her hair.  She went directly upstairs to fix her golden tresses.  Mom gave me a towel to dry off with.  Lightning struck something in the distance, and made a cracking sound so loud it hurt my ears.  “Mommy!” I cried.  I dropped the towel and clung to her. 

Mom shuddered.  “You’re wet!” she said.  There was a rumbling of thunder.  Kevin didn’t seem to mind the terrible sounds from the heavens.  He stood at the window and watched the storm.  Mom stroked my face.  “Don’t be frightened,” she assured me as lightning zigzagged across the sky, bringing an eerie flickering light in the room, “It’s only God turning on the electricity.”

“That’s all it is?” I asked her.

She nodded.  “That’s all it is.”  Thunder rumbled again like a celestial giant groaning in discontent. 

“What’s that?” I wanted to know.

Mom smiled.  “That’s just the Virgin Mary running her vacuum cleaner.”  Suddenly, I wasn’t scared anymore.  Water from the downpour began to seep in through the window, wetting the curtains and pooling on the sill.  Mom told Kevin to close all the upstairs windows.  Then she went into the kitchen to make something to eat.

I was in the living room by myself when I got the notion to go out into the storm.  I opened the front door and stood at the threshold.  Rain was coming down in torrents, quenching the parched city.  Droplets cooled the bare skin of my arms as I lingered in the doorway, watching the rain wet the asphalt.  I liked the sound it made as it tapped on the rooftop.  It rained so hard that up high it looked like swords of silver were falling from the clouds, only to lose their form upon striking the earth.  A bolt of lightning flashed in the distance.  My senses were filled up.  I was mesmerized by the wonder of it.

Because I felt no harm could come to me, I walked outside into the raging storm.  Pushed to and fro by the wind, the trees were alive with motion.  The lower limbs of the housing project trees were banging against the wire mesh they were encased in, as if they wanted to escape.  Their rustling leaves whispered pleas for shelter and I told them there was nothing to fear.

I wandered drenched and barefoot along Megargee Street, gazing up at the heavens, squinting through my wet eyelashes.  The silver swords of rain were stabbing at my cheeks.  I pushed forward against the force of the wind, past saturated red brick buildings and gutters spitting out water.  Lightning lit up the sky once more.  “I’m here, God,” I declared, “Can you see me?” and stretched out my arms as the downpour pummeled my body.

The faint sound of my mother’s voice calling my name broke the spell the angry sky had over me.  Slowly she came into focus through the blinding streams of water.  She was frantically running toward me as best she could on her swollen legs, wearing a flimsy raincoat and purple scarf.  As she came closer, a wet leaf settled on her cheek.  She brushed it away.  “My little one,” she said, “Thank God you’re all right!”  She bent down and put her arms around me.  Her bosom rose and fell as she struggled to catch her breath.  After a moment she said, “Take my hand.”  We walked swiftly back toward the house.  “Why did you go out into the storm?” she asked as we made our way home.

“I wanted to see the Virgin Mary running her vacuum cleaner,” I told her.

Mom smiled and shook her head.  “Oh, little one” she replied, “Whatever will I do with you?” We made it back home.  The screen door squeaked as it was opened, than banged shut behind us.  The damp brought out musty smells inside our unit.  We got into some dry clothes and I drank tea with my mother.  Kevin laughed at me for wanting to see the Virgin Mary run her vacuum cleaner in the sky.  He said I’d believe anything.  Mom told him to stop teasing, but I could tell she was holding back a giggle. 

One by one, my brothers and sisters arrived, having come in out of the rain.  Mom told them what happened and they all said it was just like me to do such a thing.  The storm ended as quickly as it had begun and there was a rainbow.  I asked my mother how far away was the pot of gold.  “Don’t even think about wandering off again,” she remarked.  After a while, Mom said she wanted some time to herself and to play quietly with my dolly.  She took a Bible out of the lamp table drawer.  Mom read the Bible a lot.  There were little containers of holy water in every room.  Pictures of Jesus and Mary hung on the dingy walls.  Every Sunday, when she carted the rest of us off to church with her, sometimes Dad didn’t feel like coming along.  She almost always talked him into it.  She told Dad that going to church would help solve the problems in our family, but it never did.

When Dad got back from the hardware store, he was in a bad mood.  The tool he needed had cost more than he thought it would.  He didn’t have enough money and came home empty-handed instead.  On top of that, he had gotten caught in the rain.  Now Dad was pacing back and forth in front of the television while we were all trying to watch it.  Dad always paced agitatedly right before one of his outbursts.  The air was thick with tension.  I looked nervously at my siblings, who sat rigid with anxiety, and knew the dread they were feeling.  Mom kept reading the Bible, or maybe she was just pretending to.  No one spoke.  Only the voices from the television broke the uneasy silence.

Dad began muttering to himself as he walked from one side of the room to the other and back again.  The angry thoughts he conjured up were manifested in the tightness of his face and neck and the gritting of his teeth.  Then he spit a dry spit, as if by contemplating his woes, he had built up a vendetta.  “This place is filthy!” he yelled, “What’s the matter with you kids?  You’re a bunch of pigs, all of you!”

Mom put aside the Bible.  “Jim, don’t start,” she said, “Not today.”

Dad started picking on my sister Rusty, saying she didn’t help out enough around the house and what an ungrateful kid she was.  He told my brothers they weren’t worth a nickel and he wished he had better sons.  One by one, he wounded each of us with his words, exposing our flaws, both real and imagined.  But that was only the beginning.

“And you!” he said, pointing at me.  My veins felt hot as the blood rushed through them in waves of fear.  “You think you’re too young to pick up after yourself?  You think you’re gonna get away with leaving your toys on the floor?  Well, you’re not, you little brat!”  I hung my head and looked down at the rug because the anger in his eyes was too frightening.  “Go pick them up!” he yelled in a booming voice that made my body shudder.  Tears started to flow as I stood up from the couch and picked up my dolly with the torn dress, a stuffed animal and a ball.

“Leave her alone!” Mom told him.  Dad said the little brat gets away with far too much around here and it stops today. Then he started in on my sister Eileen.  She was named after my mom.  She was nineteen and old enough to stand up to him.  She said she wasn’t going to take his shit anymore and he could just drop dead.

Dad went crazy.  He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her around the room like that, with her screaming and trying to get away.  When she broke free, a tuft of hair was still in Dad’s hand.  He had pulled it right out from her scalp.  She stumbled and Dad started to take off his belt.  Mom tried to calm him down, but Dad just pushed her away because Eileen was calling him all kinds of names. 

My parents were yelling.  My sisters and brothers were yelling.  Everyone was yelling.  Dad was snapping the belt like a whip and it caught Eileen on the back.  She wailed.  Barry tried to intervene and got whipped once with the belt for his trouble.  I tried to run upstairs.  Dad came at me with the belt in his hand.  “Where do you think you’re going, huh?” he said as he stood in my way. 

I cried out for my mother and ran, looking for a hiding place.  I didn’t know what else to do but bury my head under the cushions of the couch so I wouldn’t have to see or hear any more of it.  Dad yelled, “Get outta there!” and yanked me backwards.  I landed on my tail bone.  He grabbed my leg and dragged me. 

Mom screamed, “No, Jim!  Not my little one!”  I was jostled around as Mom tried to pry me away from Dad.  It made me dizzy and sick to my stomach.  I screamed until my lungs felt like they would burst.  Finally, Dad let go. 

Mom rushed over to me.  My body hurt.  There was a pounding in my head.  Tears were flowing from my eyes and snot was running out of my nose.  Mom took me to the kitchen as I cried hysterically.  She wiped my face with a balled up tissue she took from her purse.  "You're an animal!" she said to my father, "An animal!"

After a while, things quieted down.  My father sat on the couch and lit up a cigarette.  My sister Eileen walked out in tears, slamming the door behind her.  The rest of them went to their rooms, except Kevin.  He settled down next to Mom, who snuggled with me on the sofa.  She asked him if he was all right, leaned over and kissed the top of his head.  Mom cried all night long.  “My poor children,” she said over and over as she wept. 

At bedtime, Mom said she would tuck me in.  I slept in a small cot in my parents’ bedroom on the first floor.  My seven brothers and sisters slept upstairs, two and three to a room.  We thought children who had their own bedrooms were rich.  I lied down on the cot and Mom gently pulled the sheets over me.  She began singing a lullaby. 

Where are you going, my little one?  Little one? 
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four
Turn around and you’re a young girl walking out of the door

She smelled sweetly of rose water.  It was from the cheap scented hand cream she used.  Sometimes she let me put some on, because I liked it.  The shadows that fell over her face emphasized her stolen youth.  Her eyes were red and puffy from crying.  There were lines in her brow from stress and worry.  “What does that song mean, Mommy?” I asked her.

“It means that time goes by very quickly and someday, before you know it, you’ll be a grown woman with children of your own,” she said.  I did not see that as a happy thing.  Ours was a large family and it didn’t make us happy at all.  “It’s time to sleep, now,” she told me, “Tomorrow’s another day.”

She left, and shut the door to the bedroom.  I lay awake for what seemed like a very long time, alone and afraid.  Moonlight was shining on a crucifix high up on the wall but I could have sworn I heard monsters in the room anyway.  I trembled under the covers, wishing I could call my mother back.  Dad wouldn’t like that, so I was stuck in the room with the monsters.

The next thing I knew, I was dreaming.  Frankenstein came toward me with arms outstretched, grunting in anger.  There was no expression in his dead green face.  His eyes were black and lifeless.  I stood helpless, watching him come toward me as I was frozen with fear.  Something warm ran down my leg.  I woke up.  It was morning.  The sheets smelled bad.  I tossed the blanket aside.  “Oh, no,” I said to myself.

I gazed over at my parents’ bed and was thankful that it was empty.  There were voices coming from the living room.  I got out of bed and peeked around the corner.  Mom was chatting with my sister Rusty, who was complaining about her boyfriend.  Dad hadn’t left for work yet.  He was in the grimy pink side chair reading the Bulletin, a local newspaper.  I tapped on my mother’s shoulder.  “Mommy, I peed the bed,” I whispered in her ear. 

Mom instinctively looked at Dad, who was flipping through the paper, oblivious.  She put her finger to her lips, signaling Rusty to be quiet.  I ducked back into the bedroom before my father could find out what I had done.  Mom came in after me and quickly removed the soiled sheets from the cot.   

“Eileen?”  Dad called from the other room.

Mom hesitated as she bent over the cot.  “I’ll be there in a minute,” she called back.

I struggled to put on some dry underwear as fast as I could.  If Dad knew I peed the bed there was no telling what he’d do. “Mommy, please hurry!” I urged her, as I listened for warning signs of my father’s approaching footsteps.

Mom grabbed a spare sheet from the bureau, draped it over the cot and tucked the corners in place.  Then she rolled the soiled sheets into a ball, dropped them on the floor of the closet and hid them behind a pile of assorted junk.  “Eileen, what are you doing in there?” Dad called. 

I looked at the crucifix.  “Please help,” I asked the figure hanging on the cross. 

Mom grabbed some hairpins from the dresser.  “Come with me,” she said.  I walked with her into the living room, wiping my eyes, pretending to be sleepy.  “I woke up,” I said to my father.

“Why were you and the kid in the bedroom so long?” he asked Mom.

“I was looking for something,” she told him.

Dad rustled his paper. “What were you looking for?”

Mom sighed.  “Some bobby pins for her hair.  I searched through all the dresser drawers. There are too many girls in this house. With five daughters, we need more bobby pins.”

Dad grunted a disinterested reply and buried his nose in the newspaper.  I focused my attention on the television set while Mom fixed my hair.  On the black and white screen, uniformed police were hitting civil rights protesters with billy clubs.  Even elderly women weren’t spared.  Some of the protesters were bitten by attack dogs.  There was violence and mayhem in the streets somewhere down south.  I was too young to know what it was all about, but I sensed their feelings of powerlessness.  I felt powerless, too, every time a bully picked on me or my father was near, or shrimp was cooking and all I was allowed to eat was beans.

The image on the tv screen changed.  A man with dark skin was talking about freedom and equality.  I did not understand the big words he used, but I could tell that he was standing up to the bad people.  “They’re not so different from us,” Mom said of the protesters with dark skin, “They know what it’s like to be poor and looked down upon.”

Parts of this series are posted every Monday 

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